At a time when the workforce is ageing and the labour market is increasingly volatile, ELIZABETH McLEOD asks the question: how well are our tertiary institutions set up for those wanting to upskill, retrain or further their knowledge?

We all know the mantra: to grow a knowledge economy, New Zealand needs a highly skilled, diverse and adaptable workforce. The reality is, we have a workforce that’s increasingly made up of people who went to university 20, 30, even 40 years ago.

Between 2006 and 2013, tertiary enrolments dropped in almost every age group. While those in the under-18-year-old group dropped the most (around six per cent), they were followed closely by those in the 25–39 bracket and 40+ bracket, which dropped by around five per cent. By contrast, 18–19-year-olds’ enrolments increased by five per cent (women) and 3.5 per cent (men).

So what barriers do older people face when embarking on a tertiary education – and what’s being done about them?

Mature-age (25 and over) students often report feeling overwhelmed, anxious about ‘making the grade’ or simply lonely, while many struggle to juggle study with work and family obligations. Maria Meredith, manager for The University of Auckland’s New Start foundation programme, says mature students “may have children; be caring for an elderly parent; have to go part-time and work at the same time: there are so many issues”.

Extensive TEO support services

Most tertiary education organisations (TEOs) offer a wide range of services to support mature-age students: from orientations and mentoring services to online and on-campus workshops on academic writing, research strategies, and note-taking. There are university preparation and foundation courses for first-time students, subject refresher courses, crèches and mature students’ clubs.

Part-time Victoria University Italian language student Romina Roncato (36) feels well supported. “Being self-employed, I have to do everything myself, take all the responsibility; I go to university and they give me all this information and they’re encouraging and there are all these services available. It’s such good value.”

TEOs shouldn’t underestimate the value of compassion and the personal touch. Andrea Stills was a 31-year-old single mum with a 13-year-old son and two preschoolers when she began studying for a communications degree at Auckland’s Unitec.

“I’d previously tried studying elsewhere and just found it too challenging. At Unitec they were so supportive, it was really personal. I had a lecturer who’d say to me ‘come on, you can do it, you’ve got to finish for your children’. It’s so motivating. I achieved much more than I thought was possible, just with that support.”

Stills now works at Unitec herself, in marketing and communications – and student support. “I’m quite passionate about it because for me, that support made all the difference. I think if you have a supportive environment, it’ll get people over the line.”

Unitec where half of the 18,000 students are over 25 – strives to accommodate students’ other commitments, with many courses holding evening and weekend classes to accommodate working students.

‘Blended learning’ becoming popular

It’s also moving increasingly toward the ‘blended learning’ approach: a mix of online learning, self-directed study and assignments. Alison Dow, director of Pou Aroha Student Support, says it gives mature-age students much-needed flexibility, “as well as learning new IT skills that will be useful to them in employment”.

The University of Waikato also offers blended learning – its Mixed Media Presentation (MMP) Teacher Education programme. For Wellingtonian Lizzie Waipara (47), the flexibility it offers her as an at-home mum and mature-age student is partly why she’s opted to do her bachelor’s degree in primary teaching by distance through Waikato, instead of locally.

In MMP, students discuss texts in daily online forums facilitated by a lecturer; some on-campus lectures are videotaped and sent to distance students the same day. Students submit assignments and are tested online.

“It allows you to study at times of day you’re not dealing with children, or in some cases jobs. Just being able to fit in the study around my life, round my family, and working when I feel I can work best, is invaluable,” says Waipara.

Other TEOs offer flexible learning: almost half the students enrolled at Massey University’s three campuses are distance learners. Victoria University has a number of end-of-day lectures and courses, says director of student academic services Pam Thorburn; however, she notes that people who are working can often arrange their work schedules for morning, afternoon and evening classes.

The sector as a whole seems slow to fully embrace the possibilities e-learning offers for making tertiary education less campus-bound.

“I think the more universities move in that direction – and I think it’s an international trend – the more possibilities you’ll see for older students to come back into the system,” says Brian Findsen, professor of adult education at the University of Waikato.

“I think there’s still a lot more potential from tertiary providers to embrace the mature-age student. That may be slightly different timetabling structures, more movement towards blended learning, and just different ways of doing things.”

More government focus required

The Government’s Tertiary Education Strategy (TES) 2014–2019 asks providers to focus on lifting performance in the 18–25 age group. But as the deputy CEO of Eastern Institute of Technology Mark Oldershaw points out, “the TES is silent around mature students. However it’s clearly an area we all need to give some collective thought to.

“With an ageing population, the traditional classroom environment may not be the best fit, and more thought may be needed around online delivery to allow for flexible study.”

Mature-age students comprise roughly half of the domestic student population. A few TEOs attract proportionately more older students: notably polytechnics and whare wānanga.

Te Wānanga o Aotearoa boasts around 26,000 mature-age students – a staggering 83 per cent of its enrolments. It’s also the largest foundation education provider in the country.

“We’re proud of the fact that we re-engage people in education, particularly those who are literally casualties of the compulsory education system,” says deputy CEO John Whaanga.

Mature-age students value Te Wānanga “because we do a lot of modular courses over weekends or outside work hours, have trainers/teachers who look like them and incorporate our kaupapa Māori values throughout our delivery.”

Online home-based courses that can fit around work and family commitments and “less academic, more practice-focused” courses are also popular.

And perhaps crucially: “We probably have the lowest fee structure of any institution.”

Cost the biggest barrier

Which brings us to perhaps the biggest barrier to study facing older people cost. In the last few years, the Government has slashed entitlements to older students: the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) and Grey Power say that’s why the number of students aged 55+ has plummeted by 43 per cent since 2008. Furthermore, part-time study is generally excluded from student allowances.

“We do notice that the economic difficulties for mature students, especially when they’re raising families, are quite significant,” says Dow. Her team provides hardship support “and it’s often mature students, particularly women who’ve come off a benefit to study, who struggle to manage on a student loan.”

Stills supported her family on the Sole Parent benefit while studying, along with a $500/year WINZ loan to help with costs like transport and childcare.

“I’ve seen some amazing women, single mums of kids mostly, with as little as $30 a week for food etc. That’s pretty heartbreaking. But they’re persevering because they have the bigger picture of what it’s going to mean for their future and their children’s future.”

Lifelong learning for an educated society

She’d like to see the Government reinstate its Training Incentive Allowance for sole parent beneficiaries doing tertiary study, axed in 2008. “Obviously it’s a choice to study, but ultimately it’s the best thing all round: it’s best for society and we have a more educated country, that’s not a bad thing.”

Lifelong learning offers more benefits than simply economic ones, says Findsen: “personal fulfilment; the notion that the learning process is as important as the outcomes; the notion of the act of citizenry – being educated so you can contribute to your society in a positive fashion.

“I don’t think we should neglect the kids coming out of school, but for goodness’ sake, we live another 50, 60, increasingly 70 years after leaving school, what about all of the population that wants to continue learning?”

Findsen would like to see incentives for providers to engage with mature-age students.

The linear model of early education followed by work then retirement is “virtually redundant”, he says.

“We need to start seeing those things in parallel. We need to continue learning right through life – dipping in and out of education as we need to, to upgrade our skills or knowledge, or hold onto our jobs or change careers, or just in the interests of citizenry.”

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